I like to think of myself as an adult, but five seconds into my interview with Peter Cullen, the voice of Optimus Prime, I found myself feeling like a kid who finally got to meet the real Santa Claus. In his deep voice he intoned friendship, respect and genuine appreciation for the millions of fans whose respect for his character, in particular, has kept the Transformers franchise going for almost 30 years. Plus he did the voice for me, so I’m going to have a smile on my face for weeks.
Mr. Cullen was kind enough to take some time to talk about Optimus Prime’s unexpected character transformation in Transformers: Dark of the Moon, the deeper meaning the character holds for him, the rumors of a Transformers Prime animated movie, how he felt when Optimus died in the original Transformers animated movie, and the strangest character he’s ever played. He’s a class act, this guy. Enjoy the interview.
Oh, and for anyone who hasn't seen Transformers: Dark of the Moon yet, there's one pretty big SPOILER at the start of the interview which we talk about in depth. Fair warning. But it's out on DVD and Blu-Ray as of September 30th, so you have no excuse now, do you?
CraveOnline: I’m sure you get this a lot, but I grew up listening to you, all the time. I still have some Optimus Prime pajamas around here somewhere…
Peter Cullen: [Laughs] – That’s great…!
So let’s start with ‘Transformers: Dark of the Moon.’ I actually really enjoyed this movie, but one of the things I was surprised by was how dark Optimus Prime seems to get by the end of it.
Yeah, he executes the two villains at the end.
Yeah, there’s a dark side of Optimus as well. Certainly that was a surprise to me, and some of it happened quickly. Michael Bay found a moment in the film where it was so overpowering, from an animated point of view, and the circumstances surrounding that moment were pretty, pretty heavy. And Michael saw an opportunity to show the darker side of Optimus, almost… revenge. Anger. It was a surprise to me [during] the moment and I did it, and it was kept in. But you’re right. You’re right. There was vengeance, there was anger. And it was conveyed very well, don’t you think?
It was conveyed very well, and I bought it, but it was interesting because Optimus is such a patriarchal beacon of goodness, and so it was interesting that they would take him there and not pull him back again. He just goes to that place of darkness and the movie stops.
It has me wondering. I know Michael Bay said he’s not going to do a ‘Transformers 4,’ but I’m worried about the tone it’s going to strike for future movies if that’s where Optimus is as a character.
I don’t think it will. I think it’s a cliffhanger, but the goodness in man is oft times portrayed as by emotion, and we’re left hanging in Optimus in this particular case, but I think it can be well understood that it’s not a permanent situation in any means. We’re playing at the human factor in this, and there’s forgiveness in man, and as much [as] man, he’s capable of falling.
Has anyone talked to you about another ‘Transformers’ after this, or are they just letting it die down a bit now?
There hasn’t been any real talk, but there’s been no indication that this is the end, by any means. We animated series on the Hub Network is a good demonstration of this, the popularity of Transformers Prime is very successful, and there is talk of an animated movie through Hasbro. That to me is exciting. And the Transformers brand has a future.
Oh yeah, that’s for sure.
And live-action, there’s an appetite for live-action that I think will continue. The Generation One fans remember the original movie back in ’86, and probably the animated feature will be as significant to many people today as it was back in those days.
I don’t even know if that’s possible. I remember when that came out. Everyone at the playground was talking about it. “They killed Optimus!!!”
So was I! [Laughs.] I forget what page I was whacked. That always brings a tear to my eye, William. [Laughs.]
Supposedly, we’ve heard – and you can tell us if this is true or not – that the original plan was not to bring you back.
How long was it before you heard, “Can you be Optimus again? We miss you!”
Oh boy… [Does the Optimus Prime voice] – “Bring me back. I’m lonely. It’s time.” [Laughs] – I can’t imagine what was going on in little kids’ minds back in those days, because I shared my own personal dilemma. You know, it was a shock to me but I took it in stride. It was just… It’s entertainment. It’s business. And as we all know, the history of Optimus Prime was released out of the hearts of Generation One fans years later, to become what it is. You know, William, I’m really grateful for that. Especially the fans that were instrumental in making that happen. We have a great, great core… We had an affinity, an unspoken feeling between Prime, myself and the fanbase – the fan core – we share something that is quite unique. I’ll never forget that. And I’ll always have it for the rest of my life…
You had already been an established voice actor when ‘Transformers’ first came along. Do you remember your reaction to reading this script about cars that transform?
Yeah, I was stunned. I was with my brother Larry. We were sharing an apartment at that time. He said, “Where are you going today, Pete?” And I said, “I’m going to audition for a truck!”
“Sure, yeah. But this truck is a hero. A hero truck!” And he said, “Well, be a real hero, Pete. Don’t be one of those Hollywood heroes, even if you are a truck.”
I said, “Yeah, but I don’t know, I’ve never seen anything like this, Larry. He evidently goes from a truck into a walking steel thing.” He said, “No kidding?”
I said, “Yeah.” He said, “Well, be a real thing!” Or whatever we had talked about at the moment. And I remember his words. “Be a real hero.” And my brother was a real hero, by the way William. He was a decorated Marine, and he passed away recently.
I’m so sorry to hear that.
He was a decorated combat Marine in Vietnam. He was my hero in real life, and when I read the first few words for Optimus Prime, my brother just jumped out of the page and I impersonated him.
So you got the voice from your brother?
That’s right, yeah. I got the character, the ingredients of the character. His Marine Corps dignity, honor, courage just leapt out of the page that the authors had given, and there he was, so it wasn’t very difficult for me. My brother’s voice just echoed in every word, and that’s how that came about, and it’s still true to this day.
I think that reverence comes across.
True. Reverence, love, dignity, honor, integrity, that trustworthiness, the reliability of, you know, strength through gentle… Not screaming and yelling, phony hero bulls**t. Excuse me…
Not at all.
The true core of a hero, which in this case was my brother, and it’s an honor to be in the character.
Here’s something I was wondering: when you do voice work you spend a lot of time in alone in a booth. Did you ever have a chance to develop an acting or working relationship with Frank Welker, or any of your other co-stars in ‘Transformers?’
Well, we’re doing an animated series at the Hub called Transformers Prime. We work together as we did back in the old days in Generation One. We work in a horseshoe around the microphones, and I stand right next to Frank Welker. And it’s probably one of the most joyful experiences I’ve had in many years, to be in a room with incredible talent. The characters and the show, they’re all a pleasure to work with, and William I can’t describe it any other way, but to stand next to Frank again after several years is just the thrill of my life. I have such respect for him. I call him “The King” and I always will. He should have a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame as far as I’m concerned. A joyous man, a great man, a beautiful human being. You have no idea, to have Megatron and Prime standing next to each other and making each other laugh, on a continuous basis for four hours once a week. I wish you could sneak in the room and just be a fly on the wall.
Sir, I know you worked on a lot of strange shows. Do you remember the weirdest thing you had to do or say as a character?
Oh, I guess I was a car that couldn’t get started in the morning, and I had to speak like I was a car that couldn’t get started in the morning. I thought that was bizarre. That was very bizarre. I had to cough, sputter, make the sound of an engine, muffler, and say the words at the same time. [He makes exactly the noise he just described and laughs.] I don’t know why that came to mind, but spontaneous question, spontaneous response.
What was that for? Was it a commercial?
It was a commercial.